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Feb. 25, 2021, 10:02 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Journalists don’t always cover anti-racism protests as fairly as they think they do

Anti-racism protest stories about police brutality or the removal of Confederate statues were more often portrayed negatively, framed with an emphasis on the violence and destructiveness of protests, and relied more on officials than protesters as sources.

Amid the so-called racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd and the resulting wave of racial justice protests in 2020, newsrooms across the country began to consider their role in perpetuating racial inequities. In December, The Kansas City Star apologized for its racist coverage of the Black community, which robbed Black Kansas Citians of “opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.” In January, the Boston Globe announced a “Fresh Start” initiative aimed at correcting its crime coverage that has particularly impacted communities of color.

As the journalism industry commits to doing better, though, we have to question what “better” actually looks like. When The Kansas City Star examined its archives dating back to the 1800s, “reporters were frequently sickened by what they found,” the paper noted in an editorial. It’s safe to assume, however, that at the time journalists thought they were doing a good job.

In fact, my latest published research shows journalists still think they’re doing a good job, even when it comes to coverage of racial justice protests, and even though studies that I and others have done repeatedly show that mainstream media tend to delegitimize protesters and their causes — especially anti-racism protests, which fall to the bottom of what my colleague Danielle Kilgo and I refer to as a hierarchy of social struggle.

In my latest study, “Perceptions versus performance: How routines, norms and values influence journalists’ protest coverage decisions,” Kilgo and I surveyed 100 journalists from Missouri, Virginia, Arizona, and Texas between 2018 and 2019. Journalists’ self-reflections were then combined with a content analysis of 932 protest-related stories from the major newspapers in those states. The goal was to look for any gaps that might emerge between how journalists thought they covered protests, and actual published protest coverage.

Ultimately, the study found that journalists in these four states — which at the time were ground zero for Black Lives Matter, immigration rights, and NFL/kneeling protests — believed they did a good job covering protests fairly, even though the content analysis showed stories tended to delegitimize protests and marginalize protester voices, especially when it came to anti-racism protests.

In line with the hierarchy of social struggle, anti-racism protest stories about police brutality or the removal of Confederate statues — when compared with other protest topics like gender, immigration, or anti-Trump — were more often portrayed negatively (like this article), and framed with an emphasis on the violence and destructiveness of protests, with little discussion of protesters’ grievances or demands. These stories also relied more on officials than protesters as sources, thus belittling protesters’ voices and giving credence and authority to those perspectives the protesters were opposing.

This kind of delegitimizing coverage, referred to as the protest paradigm, has dire consequences for movements pushing for racial equity. News stories that use riot or confrontation frames, which emphasize violence and clashes between police and protesters, decrease the public’s support for, and identification with, Black civil rights protesters.

Still, despite clear evidence that anti-racism protests receive more negative coverage than other protests that are less antagonistic toward the status quo, 85% of the surveyed journalists said they were “extremely satisfied” or “satisfied” with their own protest coverage, and most said they wouldn’t change anything.

Their satisfaction can be attributed to the gaps found between journalists’ perceptions and performance.

For example, nearly all surveyed journalists (92%) said they included background information about protesters’ aims and rationale, but the content analysis showed the debate frame — which emphasizes protesters’ perspectives — was used in only about a third of articles. More than 80% said they always included protesters as sources, but the content analysis showed just 36% of articles quoted protesters more than officials, and about a third of articles didn’t quote anyone — protesters or officials — directly.

Further, the fact that half of journalists said their protest stories frequently included mentions of violence or destruction committed by protesters suggests journalists seemingly equate mentioning violence with good coverage. “Good” coverage, though, should give the public a clear understanding of protesters’ agendas and goals in order to decide whether to join them in the streets — not delegitimize them to the point the public turns against them.

The question then becomes why journalists think they’re doing such a great job, especially in the face of evidence that indicates otherwise.

Part of this can be explained by journalists’ traditional practices, norms, and values.

In the survey, journalists emphasized the importance of objectivity. Even though the concept of objectivity has rightfully come under fire lately for being a standard predicated on whiteness, journalists still talked about the importance of covering “both sides” of the story, and remaining neutral.

Although last year some news organizations took steps away from objectivity and told their journalists they could participate in the protests after George Floyd was killed, in the survey, most journalists said they had no business participating in a protest. In fact, in an effort seemingly to appear as objective as possible, most journalists said they were neither supportive nor unsupportive of protesters generally.

As is increasingly being argued, however, refusing to take a stance on issues of racial or social justice itself is a form of bias, and some issues — like racial justice — preclude objectivity and require journalists to “bring a bit of activism to their work.”

This allegiance to objectivity can create blinders for reporters covering anti-racism protests. Surveyed journalists touted their objectivity and said they covered all protests the same.

And yet.

Journalists said they were personally less supportive of anti-racism protests related to police brutality, the removal of Confederate statues, and NFL/kneeling, than they were of protests like women’s rights and immigrants’ rights.

This was reflected in the content published in the newspapers. As already noted, the anti-racism protests received more delegitimizing coverage than other types of protests — the same protests journalists said they personally were more supportive of.

So even as journalists believed they were being objective, coverage still showed a bias — potentially reflecting attempts to over-compensate for their own personal beliefs.

Lack of resources and training are also at play. Few surveyed journalists said their outlets had a reporter dedicated to covering a social justice/protest beat, limiting the ability for a journalist to truly know the ins and outs of an issue to provide the deep context racial justice reporting requires. Also, only about 27% said their newsrooms had policies about covering protests, and most of those policies were more about prohibiting journalists from protest participation, and less about how to cover a protest.

Many of the resources for reporters covering racial justice protests tend to focus on journalists’ rights, protecting themselves, or what to do if they’re arrested, thus neglecting normative responsibilities about fair coverage.

Importantly, my study was completed before the 2020 protests. Perhaps now, journalists, just as those at The Kansas City Star are doing, will be more willing to take a hard look at deficiencies in their racial justice coverage, and to normatively question what coverage should ideally look like.

While historically the news media have maintained racial hierarchies and marginalized protests that challenge the status quo, this doesn’t mean delegitimizing coverage has to be the norm. In fact, while this pattern was repeated in much of the 2020 coverage of protests after George Floyd was killed, I also witnessed a shift. Despite headlines like “Buildings Matter, Too,” I also saw coverage that called out police violence against protesters and journalists, and that specified protests were mostly peaceful. International coverage even highlighted the peacefulness of the U.S. protests.

Some of the stories that I’m currently analyzing even mention systemic racism as the underlying grievance prompting protests. We know that news coverage often reflects public opinion, so as major companies, sports leagues, and ordinary people on social media begin speaking up against racial injustice, we might expect to see a similar shift in reporting on anti-racism protests.

I don’t think 2020 coverage upended the protest paradigm entirely, but I am hopeful that perhaps it signals the beginning of a sea change in what protest coverage should look like. Coverage of the 2020 protests also highlighted the important role of alternative media in covering racial justice in ways that challenge the mainstream media’s delegitimizing patterns, so research also will need to look at how alternative, and not just mainstream media, might be contributing to a disruption of the protest paradigm.

I’m not advocating for covering anti-racism protests in a way that unfairly or unquestioningly supports all protesters’ agendas and tactics. Rather, as a researcher of news coverage of protests, I encourage editors and reporters to not unfairly delegitimize these protests, and thereby dampen public support for them. A true “racial reckoning” in newsrooms will require decentering neutrality toward racial justice and centering anti-racist practices in order to disrupt the historic negative patterns of delegitimizing anti-racism protest coverage.

Summer Harlow is an associate professor of journalism in the Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston. Her research examines news coverage of protests and the intersections of digital media, activism, and journalism.

Photo by Anthony Crider used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2021, 10:02 a.m.
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